ATHENS, GREECE - Matt Emmons was focusing on staying calm. He should have been focusing on the right target.
Emmons fired at the wrong one with his final shot Sunday, a shocking mistake that cost the American a commanding lead in the Olympic 50-meter three-position rifle final and ruined his chance for a second gold medal.
Leading by three points and needing only to get near the bull’s-eye to win, Emmons fired at the target in lane three while shooting in lane two. When no score appeared, he gestured to officials that he thought there was some sort of error with his target.
“When I shot the shot, everything felt fine,” Emmons said. “On those targets, sometimes every once in a great while, it won’t register. The shot just doesn’t show up, so that’s what I thought happened.”
He was wrong. Officials huddled before announcing that Emmons had cross-fired — an extremely rare mistake in elite competition — and awarded him a score of zero. That dropped Emmons to eighth place at 1,257.4 points and lifted Jia Zhanbo of China to the gold at 1,264.5.
“I had no clue what happened,” Jia said through an interpreter. “I looked at the scoreboard and there was no score for Mr. Emmons.”
Emmons, from Browns Mills, N.J., explained that he usually sets his sight on the number of the target as a reference point and then lowers his gun to hone in on the bull’s-eye, which was about 55 yards away in this event. The lanes are side by side, with the targets separated by several feet.
“On that shot, I was just worrying about calming myself down and just breaking a good shot, and so I didn’t even look at the number,” he said. “I probably should have. I will from now on.”
The mistake lifted Michael Anti of Winterville, N.C., to the silver at 1,263.1 points and boosted Christian Planer of Austria to the bronze at 1,262.8. It was Planer’s target that Emmons hit with his errant shot.
A perfect score — dead center in a bull’s-eye that is smaller than a dime — is worth 10.9 in the final round, but all Emmons needed was an 8.0 for gold. His shot on the wrong target was an 8.1, but it didn’t count, of course.
Emmons wasn’t the only American who blew his chance at winning the gold medal.
Anti had two points deducted from his score in the qualifying round because he fired too many shots from the kneeling position. If those two points were added to his total, he would have won the gold, finishing 0.6 points ahead of Jia.
In three-position rifle, competitors fire 40 shots from prone, kneeling and standing positions. The top eight advance to the final, where they fire 10 shots while standing.
“We both made bonehead mistakes today,” Anti said. “We both kind of gave the gold medal away.”
Emmons’ errant shot also overshadowed what had been a successful Olympics for a shooter who won four individual and four team NCAA titles at Alaska-Fairbanks.
After discovering earlier this year that someone had sabotaged his rifle, Emmons used a gun he borrowed from a training partner to win the gold medal Friday in the 50-meter prone rifle competition.
Despite his mistake on the final shot, Emmons took solace in his strong shooting.
“I was the best guy on the line today,” he said. “I shot a cross-fire, so I don’t deserve the gold medal, but at the same time, I know what I did. I know how hard I worked and what the performance was.”